Alaska Wilderness Guiding Principles
The word “wild” is a valuable one; I stress that here because it is the root of the word ‘wilderness’, something so many of us enjoy. In guiding a wilderness trip, whether it be in the arctic north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Brooks Mountains or the soaring peaks of Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve, what I want to do is help steer your wilderness experience, rather that tightly define what it is. I provide information and knowledge about the route, the itinerary, etc, but I try, whenever possible, to include you in the decision-making process.
Good wilderness leadership requires good planning, sharp outdoor skills, the ability and strength to make good decisions and resolve tricky situations. But backcountry guiding also involves establishing trust, maintaining diplomatic communication skills, combining a sensible balance of both sound intuition and learned knowledge, and the flexibility to shift with an ever-changing environment.
I run a fluid trip plan, and I encourage you to be an active participant in trip decisions as much as possible. With off-trail, and more accurately ‘no-trail’ hiking, decisions and choices are an ongoing process. We’re continually deciding where to step, where not to step, whether we should traverse a little higher up the ridge, or lower, and so on. It’s critically different to hiking on a trail. And those decisions require our attention, our engagement with the land. We have to switch on, rather than off.
Similarly, campsites aren’t designated, but chosen. There’ll certainly be plenty of times where my advice is to camp in a particular location, and that’s probably the best decision; I’ve hiked some of these routes more times than probably anyone, and know them intimately. But there are plenty of times where we have multiple options, and I think it’s beneficial to your experience to maintain a flexible option with those choices. We can, after all, camp almost wherever we want to on most of these routes.
A solid understanding of the practice of Leave No Trace wilderness travel is essential, today more than ever. That means understanding ecology and ecosystems, understanding the volume of human traffic in an area, and knowing a place. Impact on the Alaska tundra is very different to impact, for example, on the Colorado Desert or the trail systems of most Rocky Mountain National Parks. It’s important to know the place we’re in, rather than simply know standard procedures. Leave No Trace practice isn’t a One Size Fits All model.
It means limiting the number of people in our groups, and making good choices regarding campsites and routes. It’s not enough to simply pack out what we pack in, in my opinion, but important to pack out any trash others leave behind, as well. It means knowing alternate routes and options to disperse impact.
Leading a wilderness trip isn’t the same thing as leading a front country trip; wilderness requires more subjectivity and context, because we want to experience that subjectivity, that contextual circumstance. That little bit of ‘aliveness’ we feel comes from knowing we’re not controlling our surroundings.
A wilderness experience isn’t something I can, or should, define for you, but something you have on your own terms. It’s important, as a guide, to balance leadership, an advisory role, with flexibility. Trying to map it out too closely and preplan all the details removes you from the decision making process, from the choices that really are such an important element of the trip.
My role is to maintain a loose structure that allows you to walk at your hike; to navigate the broken terrain as you see it, to traverse the boulder field at your own speed. An intimate knowledge of the place means I know when to offer “Well, really, you can go either way though this section” and when to say “No, we have to go this way for now”. And I’m comfortable in the role of both advisor and leader. Guiding isn’t simply about knowing how to guy -out tents and follow a map, or treat a blister or choose a piece of gear. Sometimes guiding requires a supple arrangement, fluid and pliant, and other times it might require a tighter reign.
I’ve been guiding for 15 years, and am comfortable knowing which role is which, with being in control of a situation as well as allowing more inexperienced folks to steer the ship when. Knowing when a situation calls for different approaches is critical to being a good guide.
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